Banks in the Persian Gulf Arab states, including Dubai’s largest lender Emirates NBD, are already meeting prospective clients and taking legal advice about entering Iran’s financial system now that many international sanctions have been lifted.
Regional banks are likely to lead the way on business deals. Banks from the UAE, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait have spent months drawing up plans for entering the Iranian market, two sources familiar with the matter said, Reuters reported Wednesday.
“Regional institutions will test the water and other foreign banks will watch to see what happens,” said Stuart Jones Jr., an executive director at EY and a former US Treasury attaché to the Middle East.
“There are certain regional institutions taking legal advice to manage very real risks associated with doing business with Iran.”
Emirates NBD (ENBD), Dubai’s largest lender, has in recent months met with the Iranian business community in Dubai and discussed potential banking opportunities involving Iran once the sanctions are lifted, the two sources said.
ENBD said its lawyers were reviewing the sanctions changes but would not be making any changes to its policies yet.
“Any reengagement with Iran will take place in several stages and will require updates to policies, procedures, systems and controls as well as ongoing communication with regulators and correspondent banks,” the bank said in a statement, adding it did not currently have any material assets or liabilities in Iran.
ENBD and Qatar National Bank (QNB), the Middle East’s largest bank, have representative offices in Tehran, but ENBD’s has not been operational since 2008. The status of QNB’s office is unclear and the bank did not respond to a request to comment on its Iran plans.
The UAE is Iran’s fourth largest trading partner, home to a large number of ethnic Iranians and a channel for consumer goods imports into that country. But that relationship has been dented by sanctions and a spat between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Aside from trade finance, wealth management and project finance are seen as potential sweet spots for banks entering Iran, though some banks will be wary of their checkered history of Iranian business dealings.
Commerzbank and Deutsche Bank are among several international banks fined in the past for violating U.S. sanctions. Commerzbank is nevertheless looking into Iran.
“Commerzbank is monitoring the development very closely and is reviewing a possible adjustment of its policy (of doing business with Iran),” a spokeswoman said.
Other western lenders are more cautious though.
“Deutsche Bank will, for the time being, stick to its decision of withholding from doing business connected to Iran,” a spokesman said, according to Financial Tribune.
“Foreign banks considering establishing a subsidiary in Iran will in most cases require a partnership with a local entity unless they set up in one of a handful of free zones,” said Nicholas Gilani, senior partner at Arjan Capital, a consultancy advising on Iran business.
Since Saturday’s deal, many Iranian banks are in the process of being switched back into the SWIFT financial message system, a key to them reentering the international financial network.
The Dubai office of consultancy Promontory Financial Group, which advised several global banks on sanctions compliance, has received a flood of inquiries from lenders since Sunday including from the Persian Gulf, Lebanon and Turkey.
“They are very interested, but very cautious,” said Walid Alameddine, Promontory boss for the Middle East and Turkey.
Another complication is that banks and businesses will not be able to use US correspondent banks for clearing or settling any Iranian business deals.